How to Pick a Portfolio School – updated July 17, 2015

[SPECIAL GUEST POST FROM THE VCU BRANDCENTER’S ASHLEY SOMMARDAHL.]


Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts about portfolio schools. As Director of Student Affairs for the VCU Brandcenter, my POV may be a bit biased but hopefully some of this advice will be helpful. I’ll start by saying a few quick things about the VCU Brandcenter (I can’t help myself!) and then I’ll focus on portfolio schools in general.


The first thing our faculty, students, and alums will tell you about that Brandcenter is that we don’t consider ourselves to be a portfolio school. The Brandcenter is a comprehensive graduate advertising program focused on creativity, commerce (remember, advertising is a business!), collaboration, and culture. We have five tracks (Copywriting, Art Direction, Strategy, Creative Brand Management, and Experience Design), and while the students work together in cross-functional teams, each student develops an expertise in his/her individual track. Assignments at the Brandcenter are as realistic and practical as possible including actual “real world” assignments from companies like Google, Barnes & Noble, Audi, and HBO who’ve asked Brandcenter students to work on some of their most challenging marketing issues. Students are supervised by full-time faculty who’ve all had successful careers as Creative Directors, Planning Directors, Agency Presidents, Designers, Directors, and Editors. Most of our faculty members continue to work or consult in their field in addition to teaching. Brandcenter students earn a Master of Science degree in Business/Branding from Virginia Commonwealth University. Our students tell us the Master’s degree is important to them, more for the long-term, as it may give them an advantage if they choose to take on management roles or teach at the college level in the future. All of that said, the VCU Brandcenter is often included in the portfolio school “category” b/c all of our students (brand management, strategy, creative, and experience design) graduate with portfolios that showcase their strategic and creative thinking abilities. Our copywriters and art directors are often competing for jobs against graduates of Miami Ad School, Creative Circus, Chicago Portfolio School, and Portfolio Center. So, if you’re thinking about attending one of these schools, here are the questions I would ask each portfolio school you apply to (and if they don’t have the answers, that’s a red flag!)


QUESTIONS TO ASK OF PORTFOLIO SCHOOLS YOU ARE APPLYING TO: 
Answers for the VCU Brandcenter are below each question so you’ve got one school’s answers already! 


1.) What is your school’s job placement rate? (That’s why you’re going back to school, right? Most students go to a portfolio school to get a job in advertising vs. to continue on with a Ph.D in advertising.)
The VCU Brandcenter’s job placement rate is consistently 97% within 6 months of graduation. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of job placement rate using the Class of 2015 as an example. For reference, they graduated on May 9, 2015.
Job placement by graduation (May 9) = 25%
Job placement by June 1st = 56%
Job placement by July 1st = 83%

2.)  Can I see a list of where your most recent grads got jobs? (It’s important to see which agencies/companies currently recruit from the school. Who will be recruiting YOU when it’s time for you to graduate?)
Here’s a list of where the VCU Brandcenter Class of 2015 is getting jobs. All of the best agencies are on the list but it’s also important to note that brands like Facebook, Apple, Google, IBM, Coca-Cola, Capital One, Nike, etc. are also recruiting Brandcenter students and alums.

3.) What does the school do to help students get jobs? (Your portfolio/work is important but so are the connections your school has to the industry.)
The Brandcenter hosts a Recruiter Session event each April for recruiters to come meet our graduating students. Over the past 5 years, we’ve consistently had 200+ recruiters from the best agencies in the country attend our event. That’s more than a 2:1 ratio of recruiters to students! Check out who attended in April. 

4.) Can I see the portfolios of your most recent grads? (Look at the “end product” of your investment. Check out the graduates’ portfolios. Are you impressed by their work? Are you envious of their  portfolios? Hopefully, the answer is “yes!”)

5.) What does the school do to help students get summer internships? (I’m sure most grad programs talk about internships, but how many curate the opportunities and facilitate the application process for you?)
During the summer between the 1st and 2nd year of the Brandcenter program, the school facilitates PAID internships at some of the best agencies/ companies all over the US.  We curate all the available opportunities and our students can search the opportunities by agency/company, location or job title.  You can see where the Class of 2016 is interning this summer here. Internships are a great way to apply what you learned in school in the real world and make valuable industry connections. 

6.)  Who are your faculty? (How many of them are full-time vs. adjuncts who have other full-time jobs? How many of them actually worked and/or continue to work in our industry?)



7.)  Do you have salary data for your alums? (You are making a huge investment in yourself and the school you choose to attend. What’s the ROI (return on investment) going to be?)

8.) Why do recruiters and creative directors say they like to hire graduates from your school? (What recruiters and CDs think about the school is important. They are the “gatekeepers” to your dream job.)

9.) Do you stay engaged with your alumni? (Again, grad school is an investment so make sure you choose one that will “pay dividends” long after you’ve graduated.)
Your relationship with the VCU Brandcenter doesn’t end when you graduate. Being that we are a small, elite program, we stay in close touch with our alums. And, our alums stay in close touch with each other helping one another interview, network, etc. We keep a job postings board for our alums so they have access to the newest job openings from agencies and companies all over the world. We also feature the work our alums are doing and we share their work and accolades with our industry contacts.  Check out a few of these recent projects from our alums.

10.) Why do so many Brandcenter alums end up marrying each other? 
I have no idea but it’s one of my favorite “statistics” about our students/alums. We always joke that we should make our recruiting strategy something like, “Come to the Brandcenter to get an amazing portfolio and job + find your soulmate.” 





Makinads is an amazing resource so keep reading what these guys have to say. You may also want to check out books like Pick Me (by Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin) and Hey Whipple, Squeeze This (by Luke Sullivan) and Breaking In: How to Build a Portfolio that Will Get You Hired (by Burks Spencer.) Good luck to all of you as you pursue careers in advertising! Hopefully, I’ll see some of you at the VCU Brandcenter one day!

Ashley Sommardahl
VCU Brandcenter / Director of Student Affairs and Industry Outreach / 804-827-8874 direct / 103 S. Jefferson Street, Richmond, VA 23284

The Best of Makin’ Ads

This is post #797 for makinads.com. But if you want just the very best of the last 796, we’ve compiled them into this book, now available at blurb.

It’s over 200 pages of our most popular posts. And it comes with a review of major portfolio schools – something we haven’t put on our blog. We’ve listed websites, tuition, tracks, locations, application deadlines, and more for schools like 72U, the VCU Brandcenter and everything in between to help portfolio school hopefuls figure out which school’s best for them.

Preview and order your copy at The Best of Makin’ Ads here.

(High fives to our pal B.Thibbs who designed the cover.)

The New 72U

Maria Scileppi doesn’t like to call 72U a portfolio school. Before heading things up there, she was the director of the Chicago Portfolio School, so she knows what a program full of art directors and copywriters looks like.
“This is really strategic art school for the maker,” she says.
Oh, yeah. And it’s backed by and housed in 72andSunny, AdAge’s Agency of the Year.

I had breakfast with Maria last week and asked her about the new program. I gotta say, I’m jealous something like that wasn’t around when I was trying to break into the industry. Here are some of the highlights:

Forget what you thought you knew about 72U. It’s a new program. It used to be 10-months. Now it’s 12 weeks. It used to cost applicants $10,000. Now it’s free. (Students will pay $1,000, which goes toward their final project.)
Six applicants will be selected, and they’ll work individually, in groups of two, in groups of three, and all together. They’ll be sharing space with 72andSunny employees. They won’t be grouped together, and they won’t be separate from the agency. They’ll be seamlessly integrated.
They’ll have a range of assignments. Not all – in fact, very few – will be making ads. One assignment will be to develop and market a brand that embodies who they are. Another will be to fix a broken system. Maria says the purpose of each exercise is to make sure students come out with a stronger creative process. They’ll think and make faster.
Who should apply? Maria says, “It’s an intense curriculum, so people won’t be able to hold a job while they participate. I imagine they’re a couple years out of college. Maybe they got stuck at the wrong job and don’t know how to switch over. They don’t have to have any advertising experience, but they do have to have talent.”
Applications for 72U can be found at 72U.org. The deadline for applications is April 5th. The program will begin May 27th. The next session is planned for October 2013.

If you’ve got questions, reach out to Maria and 72U on Twitter.

The Maker Generation

Last week, I was able to catch up with my friend, mentor and first boss Kevin Lynch. Over lunch he said a few things worth sharing here. Paraphrasing, of course. My hands were too busy with my pulled pork sandwich to take notes.

According to Kevin, you portfolio students and recent grads are the Maker Generation. When Kevin or I were looking for our first jobs, if we wanted to pull something real together, we would have had to find a typesetter, a photographer, maybe a sound engineer. Nothing got produced that didn’t involve a team.

But today, people are producing work all the time with nothing more than a great idea and maybe a little tech shrewdness. I go to portfolio school reviews each year and more and more, there are students developing their own apps, fonts, websites, radio programs. It’s not just theory.

Kevin said this democratization of maker-iness means there’s no reason any portfolio school grad should go into a job interview where the person interviewing hasn’t already heard of them.

That’s a pretty high bar. Thing is, there are plenty of examples out there where portfolio school students (your competition) are already clearing it.

Portfolio-Launch.com Beta Testing

[Portfolio Launch is currently off-line. We’ll repost once we find a new server. 8.29.12]

Before I launch this site officially, I’m announcing the beta version on makinads.com.
There are five concepting exercises on this site meant to help portfolio school applicants put together a competitive book.
The art direction of the site is admittedly underwhelming. I’m working on that. Comments and criticism of the content is very welcome.

VCU Brandcenter, The Most Innovative Business School in the World

The VCU Brandcenter beat out Harvard, Wharton, Notre Dame and the London School of Business to be named The Most Innovative Business School in the World. Couldn’t be more proud of my alma mater.

While this speaks volumes for the Brandcenter’s success, I think it also says a lot about a creatively focused organization versus more traditional approach. I’m not about to knock Harvard or Wharton. But I’ve got to believe they don’t approach problems with the same level of creativity you’d find in most portfolio school programs. (Don’t let the suits and ties in the photo fool you.)

IMG 3010 1 391x261 VCU Brandcenter: The Most Innovative Business School in the World

I especially love the quote from Lee Clow in the interview: “If you wish to outsmart, out simplify.”